Tony Latham as Truffaldino, Angela Kriese as Smeraldina in NAU Theatre's "The Servant of Two Masters." Photo by Haleigh Sakas
I love that definition (it comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, 2009, by the way) and I particularly enjoy thinking about how culture is a "refinement of manners." I've recently become fascinated by old-fashioned etiquette books that give us essential advice on living--such as this gem from Emily Post in 1922 on "Going Down The Aisle of a Theatre."
"The host, or whichever gentleman has the tickets, (if there is no host, the hostess usually hands them to one of the gentlemen before leaving her house), goes down the aisle first and gives the checks to the usher, and the others follow in the order in which they are to sit and which the hostess must direct. It is necessary that each knows who follows whom, particularly if a theater party arrives after the curtain has gone up...For nothing is more awkward and stupid than to block the aisle at the row where their seats are, while their hostess “sorts them.”
Some of etiquette books are terribly out of date (or just plain common sense) but, as I tell my son, it never hurts to have manners. Sometimes asking permission, following directions, meeting deadlines, and letting neatness count help us better navigate an ever-increasingly confusing world. These outward forms of polite society help us get along easier.
I also recently heard community artist William Cochran talk about how public art can help ease the friction of living in close quarters with other people (it's basically the macro equivalent of manners). Art is another outward form of society.
Manners. Culture. They are very, very similar. So is it so surprising that cultural performances have a nuanced form of refined manners?
My son and I went to a recent Commedia dell'arte performance of "The Servant of Two Masters" performed by NAU Theatre. NAU Theatre is very simple with its instructions on Theatre Etiquette--turn off your cell phones, don't take pictures, and no eating. Very easy for us.
I also like another synposis of manners for live theatre from CAL Berkeley.
1. Arrive on time and be seated 15 minutes before the show.
2. Be aware and remain quiet.
3. Show appreciation by applauding.
4. Participate by responding to the action onstage.
5. Concentrate to help the performers.
These pointers are not only things that will help the performers do better, they are ways in which we can enjoy the performance even more. So when my son laughs hysterically at the physical comedy, he is not only completely engaged, he is actually displaying exquisite manners.
One more thing about theatre etiquette that you can't live without. When you are getting to your seat, always face the stage and press as close to the backs of the seats you are facing as you can.